BEFORE THEY SET OUT FOR A SATURDAY stroll in a towering evergreen forest 60 miles northeast of Seattle, David Peterson assured his wife, Robin, that it would be an easy hike. Eight months pregnant, Robin, 19, wanted a day of fresh air and scenery. "Our midwife told us the more exercise Robin got, the better," says David.

Peterson, 22, a day-care worker, had a more ambitious side trip in mind for his other hiking partners: Vaughn Rodewald, 23, a delivery-truck driver, and Mike Kichline, 21, a recent college graduate. With them, Peterson planned to sneak a peek inside an ice cave at the base of 6,135-foot Big Four Mountain. Formed by the buildup of snow from frequent avalanches over the past five years, the cave is popular with day hikers, despite posted warnings of extreme danger. "It's almost too tempting," says Fred Harnisch, a district ranger for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Arriving at the gaping mouth of the cave after a relaxed 45-minute walk, Robin stayed outside while David and his buddies, armed with a headlamp and two flashlights, went exploring. Awed by the size of the cavern, the men were 15 minutes into their expedition when they heard a thunderous rumble. "It was deafening," Peterson recalls. The trio sensed immediately that they had been trapped by an avalanche. "We knew we were in deep," says Rodewald. "We just didn't know how deep." In fact, some 40 tons of packed snow had blocked the entrance. Quickly, Rodewald began scooping out a two-foot-wide tunnel with his gloved hands. Then, to make the job go quicker, he reached for Peterson's three-inch camping knife and started cutting away huge chunks of snow. Behind him, Kichline and Peterson waited. "I couldn't stop thinking about Robin," Peterson says. "Was she alive? Was the baby OK?"

Outside, Robin lay dazed after being carried some 200 feet in a tumbling cloud of snow. "I had this feeling of being thrown around like a helpless rag doll," she says. Barely able to see because her glasses had been torn from her face, Robin stumbled to her feet and clutched her belly as she started walking away from the mountain. She was crying hysterically. "I don't remember any pain, just complete confusion," she says. "All I could think about was David and that I had to get help."

Back in the cave, after Rodewald had tunneled for 20 minutes, David Peterson offered to take his turn. "I started to chip away at the snow," he says. "But being in that tiny space, with not an inch to spare anywhere, terrified me." Peterson, who suffers from claustrophobia, suddenly began reliving an experience of seven years before when he was trapped in an elevator for three hours. "By the time they found me, there was blood everywhere," he says. "I had been using my face and hands to push back the walls. [Now] I felt the terror of that again and had to quit." Taking Peterson aside, Rodewald traded jokes with him to help keep his mind off his confinement and his pregnant wife.

Kichline took over the job of digging the tunnel. "I concentrated on where to cut next," Kichline says. "If I let my mind wander and questioned whether I had five feet left or 100 feet, my stomach would turn." Working on adrenaline, Kichline kept digging for more than two hours. The tunnel stretched some 30 feet when the snow in front of him turned from black to blue. "I yelled to turn out the lights," Kichline says, "so I could see if it was really the surface."

In the forest Robin had continued to trudge through the snow, muttering anxiously to herself. As darkness began to envelop her, she heard voices and yelled out for help. A man and two teenage boys greeted her on the trail. "I still don't know who they were," she says. One of the boys helped her walk to the trail head and radioed for an ambulance. En route to the hospital, Robin learned from an emergency radio dispatch that a rescue team had been sent to the ice cave, only to discover they weren't needed. Her husband and his friends had dug themselves out.

Feeling her baby kick inside her, Robin smiled. But after a 45-minute ride to Everett General Hospital, outside Seattle, she began feeling contractions and was rushed to an emergency room to stop premature labor. Moments later David Peterson arrived. He collapsed in tears in his wife's arms. "I didn't want to let him go," says Robin. She was released from the hospital the next day.

On his return home, Rodewald found a message waiting for him from the local search-and-rescue team, asking him to respond as a weekend volunteer for an emergency at the Big Four Caves. "I still don't think they know it was me in there," he says. "I hope they never find out."

DAVID GROGAN
RHODA DONKIN JONES in Seattle

  • Contributors:
  • Rhoda Donkin Jones.